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Gamasutra's Best of 2008: The 5 Most Significant MMO Trends

Gamasutra's Best of 2008: The 5 Most Significant MMO Trends Exclusive

December 24, 2008 | By Michael Zenke

December 24, 2008 | By Michael Zenke
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Throughout December, Gamasutra presented a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2008, from the perspective of our position covering the art, science, and business of games.

Previously: 2008's top disappointments, downloadable titles, overlooked games, gameplay mechanics, indie games, surprises, PC games, trends, handheld games, developers, controversies, and games of the year.

For one more special bonus, guest MMO expert Michael Zenke takes a look at the year's five most compelling trends in online gaming.

The world of MMOs is an enormous business, and a huge opportunity for the game development community at large, from World Of Warcraft's $1 billion yearly haul to microtransaction-based firms like Nexon that make tens of millions yearly in the West.

Here are the biggest stories of 2008 in online gaming - and just maybe some hints as to next year's top titles and trends:

The AAA Fantasy Game Is A Solved Problem

Two multi-million dollar epic fantasy MMOs launched this year, and by the standards of both of the companies that made them they are simply not successful.

Funcom, the developer of Age of Conan, has admitted as much in interviews. Game director Gaute Godager stepped down as a result of the game's post-launch failure, and the company is now focused entirely on restoring good will with the title's diminished playerbase.

Warhammer Online developer Mythic Entertainment hasn't admitted anything, but by the standard of comments made by company head Mark Jacobs they haven't achieved the success they were looking for. Pre-launch statements had him saying that if a company is closing or merging servers within a few months of a game's launch, there are problems. Warhammer has merged several servers in the days since its release.

Meanwhile, Blizzard's launch of Wrath of the Lich King has completely reinvigorated the World of Warcraft community. More than simply 'ten more levels', Blizzard has made significant improvements on the game's basic design. A more casual-friendly leveling experience and technology-rooted storytelling advances have made WoW players completely reassess what the IP giant is capable of.

Burning Crusade may have offered entry-level content more appropriate for a new player, but Wrath of the Lich King has given new players an actual reason to play: high-end content of a quality previously unseen in the MMO space.

Successful expansions for both Lord of the Rings Online and EverQuest II are also well worth noting, as these high-quality games reinvigorate their own dedicated playerbases. Their internal success only serves to highlight the stark reality 2008 has borne out: the AAA fantasy MMO is a solved problem.

The inn is full, there are no seats left at the table, the plane door is closing... whatever metaphor you want to use, AAA fantasy games are a niche in the games industry that is now nearly impossible to enter. Existing market players (Blizzard or otherwise) are going to continue to have a high rate of success with retaining and pleasing their users, while new entrants onto the scene are going to face nigh-onto insurmountable odds.

The half-dozen or more Western developers currently working on their own fantasy games are well-advised to note the challenges of 2008.

The Microtransactional March To Victory

More than anything, 2008 signaled a death-knell for the future of subscription-based online gaming. In ten, maybe even five years, paying a monthly subscription for an online game will sound as archaic as paying a play-by-the-hour fee does now.

The microtransaction model has been gaining in popularity here in the West for years now, but 2008 truly highlighted the waning power of the subscription model. From the rollout of Sony Online Entertainment's Station Cash program to the blockbuster success of companies like Three Rings and Nexon, Western players have made it abundantly clear that they're very comfortable paying smaller amounts of money over time to get the services they want.

Compound that with news of MT plans for upcoming products and the growing popularity of even formerly-reviled Eastern online imports, and it's clear that there's been a substantive shift in consumer thinking about online content.

At GDC this year, Rob Pardo of Blizzard described the microtransaction question as an East vs. West issue, but increasingly, commentators have noted that's simply not the case. Microtransactions may have taken off as the business model in Eastern markets, but Western consumers are quickly adopting the free-to-play pay as you go mindset.

The gains in popularity and mass-market appeal online gaming have achieved in recent years are almost certainly the root of this transition. Shifting demographics have helped this along as well, as younger players will eventually force this kind of change through to 'older' games. It's all about perspective: most of the kids playing Runescape right now aren't going to want to pay a monthly fee when they graduate to a different game.

The tantalizing hint Jon Riccitello offered about the future business strategy for BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic may be the strongest indicator of Western microtransaction adoption yet. Though EA tried to take back the comment, though they may not have 100 percent solid plans for the title yet, even the indication that one of the West's biggest publishers is considering that kind of market strategy is a sea-change in MMOs.

To see the front-lines of this change, you need look no further than your local Target. The gaming section of the electronics department is dominated by a display of 'cash cards' for everything from Eastern games-gone-Western to Blizzard's World of Warcraft.

The vast majority of the world's population not only doesn't have a credit card, they don't even have a bank account. Addressing that market, be they 6 or 60 years old, is a big change " perhaps the biggest change - for online gaming.

The Heroic Position Of Middleware

Though it went largely unnoticed by the gaming public, ongoing advances in MMO middleware have quietly been working to change the face of online game development. There are now four different competing products all working to capture the title of "MMO in a box". BigWorld, the Icarus Platform, Multiverse, and HeroEngine are all directly targeting companies looking to make massively multiplayer games, and each has their claim to fame.

The 'browser approach' used by Multiverse combined with high-profile connections to properties like Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer has made that company quite noteworthy in certain circles. The Icarus platform showed off an iPhone in-world browser at AGDC this year, and their post-apocalyptic MMO Fallen Earth looks to capitalize on the no-show status of the Fallout online game sometime soon. BigWorld, too, has had some quiet successes connecting with in-development titles like StarGate Worlds.

And then, of course, there's the folks at HeroEngine. Two years ago they quietly made the announcement that they were collaborating with BioWare on an unannounced title. Today, they're the drivers behind one of the most highly-anticipated MMOs in development. As if backing Star Wars: The Old Republic wasn't enough, they're also connected with the developers at Stray Bullet games, Colony Studios, and Zenimax Online.

Whether the average online player has heard of these companies or not, their successes in 2008 may very well shape the future of Western MMO development.

The MMO Gold Rush Takes A Left Turn

Despite the economic slowdown affecting most of the industry, more companies and intellectual properties than ever seem to be interested in jumping onto the online gaming bandwagon.

Even as existing MMO developers make cutbacks and layoffs, new developers are continually seeking to enter the space and additional projects are announced. Despite the dangers inherent in the space, despite the ‘lessons learned’ from the fantasy genre, most of the year was spent in a mad rush towards online gaming.

Most compelling (or appalling, depending on your point of view) was the notion of connecting the unique offering of gaming in an MMO space with the very traditional medium of television. The announcement of a Sci-Fi channel television show somehow ‘hooked into’ a massively multiplayer game is almost certainly the most ambitious of these online space gold rush projects.

Trion World Network is the harbinger of many gold rush elements, not only heading up the Sci-Fi channel project but an MMO capitalizing on the Heroes of Might and Magic series as well. Many such games were announced in 2008, with perhaps-wisely cancelled projects like the Halo MMO further highlighting the appeal of this space.

The desperate downturn the online games industry has seen in the last few months may have finally curtailed that charge, but online gaming continues to be seen as one of the most lucrative elements of the industry. As soon as venture capital money begins to flow again, expect a return to the mad rush towards online gaming.

User-Made Content Marches On

The developers say ‘why not make your own content?’
While -" just yet -" the user-made content movement isn’t quite as big a deal as microtransactions, it’s getting there. Several different initiatives came to the foreground this year offering users the chance to not only play games but make their own, customize an online space, even roll their own MMO entirely.

The two most important are undoubtedly Metaplace, which is now in Beta testing, and the now-commercially launched Whirled from Three Rings. Both are abandoning the field of AAA games, multi-million dollar dev cycles and incredibly costly content to embrace the quick-and-dirty ethos of Web 2.0.

As Metaplace co-founder Raph Koster puts it, people just don’t care about high-rez 3D images if the fun is there. Metaplace is banking on this by providing the tools to create seriously tricked out MMOs in a 2D space.

Participants only need to know how to make use of the LUA scripting language to make full use of the project, and even participants that can only make use of a GUI will be able to pick-and-choose from pre-built components.

Meanwhile, Whirled, from the makers of Puzzle Pirates, brought the flash gaming craze to a persistent online peak. A disjointed world of player-made rooms and games, Whirled actually allows users to upload their own content for resale using a meta-currency.

Offering a business model that supports not only the company but content contributors, Whirled looks to capitalize on the creativity of its users much as Metaplace does, but with even less up-front preparation required.

The modest successes of these projects in 2008 will give way to their real potential in 2009. Their success or failure will most likely pave the way for the integration of user-generated content and online gaming in the Western world.

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